Often when I am looking at our blog stats and the search terms that have led people to look at our blog, I find phrases that indicate the traffic is from students on a mission to complete a school assignment. Sometimes they’re rather general and seem to suggest the searcher hasn’t read the book and is trying to pretend they have like, “What happens in X book?” or “What happens in chapter 3 of Y book?” And sometimes they’re fairly specific questions that I assume are an actual essay prompt like, “Is Chaucer’s Wife of Bath feminist?” (and I really hope people are actually citing us as a source for these questions and not plagiarizing us!). Frequently, the questions are somewhere in between, ones I assume are short answer questions for a worksheet designed to test reading comprehension, and these may be the worst. They’re questions like, “What is the theme of Z book?” and seeing them always makes me want to tear my hair hair out because they’re reductive and seem designed to make students misunderstand literature as a field of study and maybe make them dislike reading, too.
The problem with asking a question like, “What is the theme of this book?” is that very few books actually have a single theme. When I review books for the blog, I frequently make an entire list of themes I believe the book has touched on. Asking students, then, what THE theme of a book is, is not a question designed to have them think about, interpret, or engage with a book. It’s a question that’s asking them to read the teacher’s mind. It’s the equivalent of saying, “This book has several themes, but there is one that I personally think is the ‘main’ or ‘most important’ theme. Which theme is it that I’m thinking of here?” That, of course, is frustrating, and it leads students to think of learning about literature in entirely the wrong way. (Disclaimer: I admit there are some stories that do have a fairly obviously “main” theme, which I will discuss more in a follow-up post!)
There are ways to be correct or incorrect when interpreting literature. Krysta talks about that at length in this post, but some examples are that you can make an argument for which there is no evidence in the text, or you can make an argument that is contradicted by evidence in the text which you did not sufficiently engage with. However, when students go through school being asked questions about books that amount to guessing what the teacher’s personal opinions of those books are, they begin to think that literature is a “BS subject.” That there’s no way to be truly right or wrong about the text itself; there’s only being right and wrong about what it is that the teacher wants you say. This makes literary interpretation seem arbitrary. And even if students think the teacher’s opinions are valid, it makes literature seem reductive: “Book A is about only this one (obvious) thing.”
I don’t teach middle or high school literature classes, and I recognize there are a lot of considerations about what is taught in the classroom and how questions are asked; there are clearly people with more expertise on this topic than me. However, I do wish more teachers would find ways to help students understand that interpreting literature is a nuanced process. There might be more than one right answer; there can also be wrong answers. The point is to explore those answers, not to reduce stories to worksheets with clear right and wrong answers that match what the teacher wants to hear.
Look for my upcoming follow-up post discussing what texts are chosen to be read in the classroom and how that might affect how students understand the process of interpreting literature!